You know how there are those moments that can change everything in an instant? Often, this is in a bad context, but I believe just as strongly in the irrevocable flashes of good in our lives. The moments when the universe steps in and says look what is possible.
For me, these moments include the night Dan proposed under a starry sky of snowflakes, our wedding day, the birth of each of our children, and a handful of incredible experiences I’ve encountered through life and travel, many of them on this trip around the world. So far, Thailand has given me no less than two such amazing experiences. The first was visiting Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary and place to encounter elephants in their natural environment. The second experience, that dazzled and amazed, can be summed up in three words: the lantern festival.
There are two festivals happening simultaneously during our time in Thailand. The name of the festival varies by region, but it is the same festival, essentially. Loy Krathong is characterized by releasing small boats into the water, called krathong, that are made from banana trees, decorative flowers and a lit candle. Loy Krathong was traditionally celebrated on November 11, but with tourist interest and attention, the festivities have ballooned to last several days (this year from November 8 to 12). The exact date also depends on the lunar calendar and the arrival of the full moon. In Buddism, releasing krathong is supposed to appease the Queen of the River, Kongka, and serve as an apology for taking her water and doing with it what we will. While Loy Krathong is celebrated across Thailand, specific to the region of Chiang Mai with its old city, is Yi Peng. As a member from the staff of our hotel explained to me,
“The North of Thailand we call Yi Peng. The people are called Yi Peng.”
While Yi Peng is the name of the festival of lights in the North, it also happens to be the birthplace of the tradition of releasing lanterns, called khomloy, into the air in Thailand, which now happens in other cities in Thailand as well. Khomloy are large lanterns, lit from the bottom like hot air balloons. You grasp the khomloy tight, and then when it reaches peak temperature and tugs away from your grasp, begging to be let go, you release it up into the air, along with all of your troubles and a wish for good things to come. This year, the mass release of the lanterns was slated to happen on November 11th and 12th mostly; and though the city of Chiang Mai tried to outlaw releasing khomloy within the old city limits for the first time, the Yi Peng were not dissuaded, I can assure you.
Releasing the lanterns carries great significance and is a symbolic act. As our hotel staff member explained,
“Your life now has a trouble, your wish make it better. Make a wish about the good things to come in your life, (release the lantern) make the bad things go away.”
Our accommodation was twenty-five minutes outside the city by car, and our hotel graciously organized a boat tour for its guests to be able to experience the simultaneous festivities, lights by sky and water, in the middle of it all. Of course, there are organized mass lantern releases, and you can pay $100 a ticket, but arguably the best place to see the lanterns and experience the sights and sounds is in the heart of the old city of Chiang Mai, by Narawat bridge. The cost to be in the old city is free, if you can fight your way in; the view priceless.
Our little boat crew of about twenty-five people took off downstream. We could see beautiful krathong floating in the water right from the start, from the shores of our hotel, but as we passed by several celebrations taking place further along the banks of the river, the array of accumulated lights along the water was dazzling. By boat, to reach the heart of the action, we had about an hour of drifting to do, but around each bend the anticipation and thrills only grew. We saw a few lanterns, khomloy, dancing high in the air in the distance, a harbinger of delights to come.
As we approached the city, we observed many people releasing khomloy into the air and krathong into the water, but it was the scene as we rounded the final bend that was the most spectacular. Thousands of illuminated lanterns, suspended in the air, moving in unison, rising. My eyes glowed from the sheer pleasure of the scene. And as we drew nearer, the lanterns only grew bigger, fireworks shooting off all around us, packed shores and bridges, bodies and lights everywhere. I could plainly see the scene from shore would have been too much for our little family. We would have been engulfed by the masses entirely. Even from the water, the scene was overwhelming. I was brimming with emotion, every one of my senses firing, lit up. The thought came to me, and without question I knew it to be true: this is the most enchanting experience of my life.
Our boat tour began at 8:00 p.m. – past our children’s regular bedtime. Despite her tiredness, Ariel remained engaged for quite a while; but when she deteriorates, she deteriorates fast. Penelope, bright-eyed, was eager for adventure and told me, “This is so cool!” as we approached the multitude of lights by boat. Elyse was able to take in the sights and sounds, but in a modified way. We needed to tune down the sensory experience for her so as she would not become too overwhelmed and shut down completely. The combination of a late night, being out in the dark, loud and abrupt sounds, bright lights, a moving open-air boat, and a foreign situation all spell disaster for our sensitive Elyse. So we did what we had to do – not what I would have liked to do – but what we had to do, and we brought earphones and an iPad to help keep Elyse calm. During what I would call the height of the chaos and beauty, while our boat was momentarily stationary, Elyse took off her earphones and came over beside me while I lowered a krathong on behalf of our family into the water, and that was a beautiful moment. She took part in her own way.
There were several families and children on the boat alongside us, which was nice. The look of wonder and excitement on their faces, on all of our faces. One French-speaking boy, who took a particular liking to Elyse, happened to be on board with his family. Earlier in the day by the pool, I had come down for a swim with Ariel and Penelope, while Elyse was upstairs still getting ready. The little boy came right over to me and asked,
“Où est celle qui a sept ans?” Where is your daughter who is seven years old? He was delighted when she joined us shortly thereafter.
After our evening boat ride ended, sometime after 10:00 p.m., each of us filled to the brim by the experience, but also exhausted from the day’s events, we traipsed through the lobby on the way back to our room, and I caught up with the little boy again. He handed me a candy. “Oh, thank you! Is this for me?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Oh, it’s for Penelope?” who was standing beside me.
He shook his head again.
“Non, c’est pour celle qui a sept ans.”
Elyse had already made her way upstairs, but I made sure to deliver the candy from her crush.
There are definitive moments and large sweeping gestures, grandiose scenes of lantern-lit skies that take your breath away and then there are the everyday kindnesses that make life so sweet and worthwhile, that make the heart glow from the inside out as bright as floating lanterns backlit against the night’s sky. I am grateful to have experienced both in one day. Life will never be the same.